Articles: Ultimatums (1963)

This article was first published in the August 2013 edition of the SJT Circular.

Fifty years ago, a chain of events was set in motion that would result in the closure of the Library Theatre and almost saw the end of theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.
In 1963, Stephen Joseph wrote an ultimatum to the Libraries Committee in Scarborough setting out proposals for what needed to be done to ensure the Library Theatre could feasibly continue in the years ahead. Without the committee’s support, he confidently predicted the Library Theatre would imminently close.
That the Library Theatre found itself in such a position was largely a result of events the previous year. In 1962, Stephen Joseph finally achieved his long-term ambition of a permanent home for theatre-in-the-round.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in Scarborough. In a converted cinema at Stoke-on-Trent, the Victoria Theatre opened; the first permanent professional theatre-in-the-round venue in the UK.
Stephen’s company Studio Theatre Ltd, which had run the Library Theatre since it opened in 1955, moved completely to Stoke-on-Trent taking with it the majority of the Arts Council funding it received; the Arts Council of Great Britain having refused to separately fund both the Victoria and the Library Theatre.
The future did not look terribly bright for the Library Theatre. However, Stephen was not inclined to lose the venue which had launched professional theatre-in-the-round in the UK and which had proved to be fairly successful. He formed a new company, Scarborough Theatre Trust - which exists to this day and is responsible for the SJT - to allow the Library Theatre to continue.
However, the venue had a number of pressing problems, not least lack of funding. The 1963 summer season was produced at half the budget of the 1962 season, cutting costs wherever possible. Stephen had also reluctantly abandoned the winter seasons which had been running successfully since 1957.
He was also increasingly concerned with the limitations of a venue not designed to house a theatre, which had only been exacerbated in the years since it opened. All these issues formed the foundations of a strongly worded ultimatum.
In April 1963, Stephen Joseph and the theatre manager David Campton wrote an extensive document addressing the future of the Library Theatre, its immediate needs as well as a perceived lack of support from the Libraries Committee. This document - only recently brought to light - is still held in the Stephen Joseph Theatre collection at Scarborough Library.
It offers a fascinating insight into Stephen’s view of the theatre at the time: “The present company is very small. There is a good deal of voluntary work. The artists are mostly underpaid and overworked. Production costs and publicity have been kept at a minimal level.... The directors are not prepared to plan any further seasons without improvement of these circumstances.”
Stephen’s eight suggestions to remedy this included more subsidy and support from the Libraries Committee, better dressing rooms, kitchen facilities, administration space, better advertising and publicity and, finally, a commitment to helping the Library Theatre find a permanent home both for itself and also for the amateur community which had become an increasingly important part of the venue.
Stephen prefaced the document by noting “the current season of theatre in the round is likely to be the last, unless...”.
Judging by surviving correspondence, Stephen’s ultimatum was ignored completely by the Libraries Committee. And despite the implied threat, the Library Theatre did not close at the end of 1963.
But it was only a temporary stay of execution. The ultimatum had been delivered and was not forgotten. Two years later, Stephen Joseph publicly announced he had had enough.
The Library Theatre was closed down with no intention of it ever opening again....

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.